Analysis: Tunisian balloting - A double-edged sword

Observers have praised the elections’ transparency and high turnout, but success of Islamist movement Ennahda leaves questions.

Rached Ghannouchi 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi)
Rached Ghannouchi 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi)
Parliamentary ballots closed Monday in Tunisia – the country’s first free elections and the first significant democratic exercise in this year’s “Arab Spring.”
Observers have praised the elections’ transparency and high turnout – remarkable in a country with little, to no, experience of democracy.
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“The voting process went well. There were few reports of irregularities,” said Daniel Zisenwine, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
“By all accounts, the elections were very transparent and organized – that’s no small feat for a country with no experience in this. Turnout was high – no one can say this was unrepresentative.”
At the same time, preliminary results indicate that at least a plurality of votes will go to Ennahda, the Islamist movement long banned under the dictatorial regime of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ennahda did particularly well among expatriate voters – electoral rules set aside six voting districts for Tunisians living abroad, most of them in France, other European countries, Arab states and the Americas.
“It remains to be seen whether it will be 30 percent or 45%,” Zisenwine said, “but obviously, a vote for Ennahda coming from France carries a different message than one coming from Tunis. This is in many ways an immigrant identity question, and it’s often been perceived that citizens abroad display more radical or extreme political positions than those at home.”
Ennahda has given conflicting signals over the extent to which it hopes to impose Shari’a law on Tunisia – arguably the Arab world’s most secular state – and how far it will go in upholding the rights of the country’s women.
“There’s a question about its true colors. Is it indeed a right-of- center, conservative-oriented religious-flavored party, or is it an all-out radical Islamic group?” Zisenwine said.
“The results will indicate whether Ennahda has to remain in a coalition status with other parties – which would by nature, force it into some kind of compromise or negotiations – or produce an all-out victory that would produce more bold political conduct. All of this remains to be seen,” he continued.
“Rachid Ghannouchi is certainly among the more reform-oriented Islamists, but he is an Islamist,” said Zisenwine of the Ennahda leader, who, though an esteemed figurehead within the party, is not running in the elections. “Will Ennahda be a sort of Tunisian model of Turkey’s AKP? Maybe – a lot depends on the outcome.”
In the early 1990s, free elections in Algeria, Tunisia’s neighbor, yielded an Islamist victory in the first round of ballots. The result prompted a military intervention that sparked a decadelong civil war, that ultimately claimed at least 150,000 lives.
“We all have the Algerian model in the back of our minds, but this is a different situation. If Ennahda indeed reaches a leadership position, it will have to deliver, and expectations are high... The economy isn’t doing very well, and the country will need to be rebuilt. But they’ve proven and shown remarkable resilience in building themselves as a movement.”
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, also a Dayan Center Research Fellow, said a more Islamic Tunisia is all but a foregone conclusion.
“Tunisia will be more Islamicoriented – I don’t see how one could conclude anything else...
The question is: Can Tunisia be more Islamic while maintaining its Western, Mediterranean cultural roots? And can it be a country where Western-style rule of law can reign supreme? If it can’t happen in Tunisia, it won’t happen anywhere else in the region.
“Tunisians have a better chance of succeeding in the democratizing process, and working out a fairly stable, nonviolent framework that will allow the country to maintain stability without falling into new violence or dictatorship, or domination by Islamists or the military. They have the best chance in the region, but it’s still very fragile,” Maddy-Weitzman said.
Tunisia, he said, “Has a strong middle class, better status of women, and there is a certain legitimacy of the state. Those things work in its favor – but all of these are going to be tested.”
Maddy-Weitzman said Ghannouchi, who returned to a hero’s welcome in Tunisia in March after decades in European exile, “was always, in his thinking, closer to the ‘Turkish model’ than just about any of the other Islamist leaders. He certainly seems more tolerant, or less demanding of Shari’a law, than the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists elsewhere.
“But he has also had very nasty things to say about Israel, the West, Iraq, as well. Lover of Zion he’s not.”